- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A leading anti-Mafia prosecutor who spent decades battling Italy’s powerful ‘ndrangheta clans at great personal cost was awarded the Civil Courage Prize on Wednesday evening.

Since the early 1990s, Nicola Gratteri has contended with death threats against him and those close to him, and rarely goes out in public for reasons other than his work.

The ‘ndrangheta, a global force in the cocaine trade, has a firm grip on Gratteri’s native Calabria and has become so dangerous it has eclipsed even the more famous Sicilian Cosa Nostra.

“In the last 20 years I have not gone once to the movies, or watched a soccer game at the stadium, or gone for a walk on the street,” Gratteri said in his acceptance speech. One thing he will not stop doing: visiting schools and trying to talk students out of becoming a part of the ‘ndrangheta, he said.

These days, the ‘ndrangheta runs a multibillion-dollar narcotics empire and launders money from resorts in Italy to pizzerias in Germany. It is built on family relationships and strategic marriages, is impervious to turncoats and infiltrators and nearly impossible to penetrate.

“Make no mistake: in attacking ‘ndrangheta, prosecutor Gratteri is attacking something even more dangerous - the sense of fatalism and futility that allows organized crime to grow,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a speech shortly before the prize was awarded.

Gratteri, who was born and raised in the city of Reggio Calabria just across the Strait of Messina from Sicily, watched many of his childhood friends grow up to become clan members.

He referred to some in his acceptance speech Wednesday night: a school friend whose father had been killed in a Mafia attack and who later met the same end, another who was the daughter of a notorious ‘ndrangheta boss, and a childhood playmate whom Gratteri later convicted in court.

But he never seriously considered practicing in a different, safer town.

“I chose to stay, knowing it would require sacrifices,” Gratteri said. “But I did it with the conviction that I could help solve the problems of that land. I stayed close to my roots to build a future for myself and my family.”

The Civil Courage Prize is awarded annually by the New York-based Train Foundation.

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